- Excellent value
- Vivid display
- Long-lasting battery
- Mostly clean take on Android
- Average performance
- Camera underwhelms in low-light settings
- Parts of design feel cheap
The Alcatel OneTouch Idol 3 is the best sub-$300 Android phone to date. Like the OnePlus One, Nexus 5, and Moto G before it, it's an encouraging step towards ending the neglect typically faced by the low end of the smartphone market.
Good smartphones are too expensive. With the claws of the annual release cycle entrenched in the mobile market, the upgrades today’s high-end devices receive over their predecessors have become less and less significant. You can’t see the difference between a 5-inch 1080p display and a 5-inch 1440p one. The Snapdragon 810 isn’t letting you run anything the Snapdragon 801 couldn’t. There are only so many ways to show square icons in a grid, all performing similar tricks. You now get to charge your battery at 11am tomorrow instead of 11pm tonight. You can have your screen curved, because why not. The best smartphones are still miraculous things, and their yearly changes still make things better (usually), but the extent to which they do is shrinking. For that nebulous list of requirements we call “most people’s needs,” flagships have long since hit the point of diminishing returns.
Yet the cost of those flagship phones remains the same. Year after year, the public is sold something incrementally superior under the guise of something revolutionary, the phone makers collect their $650, and the carriers get their fresh batch of contracts. The slightly older phones are left behind, despite being plenty capable. The upgrades are staggered: This year the build gets improved, but wait until next year for the software problems to be cleaned up.
On the other end, most affordable alternatives are designed to be subpar, neglecting niceties like quality materials in order to push you towards the higher tier. The market gets stuck with few exceptions willing to try something legitimately different. Most people just accept this, because having something deemed “the best” feels nice. The geekier among us will find the value in a slight spec bump or design refinement–and more power to them–but those who just want something “good enough” are usually paying for more than they need.
Which makes phones like the Alcatel OneTouch Idol 3 all the more essential. The finest handset this often irrelevant OEM has ever produced, the Idol 3 follows in the footsteps of the Moto G, OnePlus One, and Google’s Nexus phones by providing a refined experience at a price that doesn’t inflate its worth. For $250 unlocked, it brings a 5.5-inch 1080p display, a still useful Snapdragon 615 chipset, a beefy 2910 mAh battery, a light build with two powerful speakers, Android 5.0, and LTE connectivity. It’s a device that’s realistic about how far phones have progressed–nothing is world-class, but that doesn’t mean it’s incompetent. Instead, it’s another encouraging step towards lessening the gap between the contrived haves and have-nots of the smartphone world.
Let’s take a closer look at the device, which goes on sale later this month through Amazon and Alcatel itself. Please note that we’re reviewing the 5.5-inch version of the device–there’s also 4.7-inch model that will come with lesser specs across the board.
Build and Design
The Idol 3 isn’t the kind of phone that constantly reminds you that it’s inexpensive, but its design isn’t ever going to touch the classier digs of a Galaxy S6, One M9, or iPhone 6. Higher-quality build materials are most of what you’re paying for with those upper-tier devices; with something as affordable as the Idol 3, you’re still going to have a hard time avoiding plastic.
The good news is that this specific plastic doesn’t feel explicitly cheap. It’s smooth and understated, with a faint brushed pattern that feels as if it was crafted with care. For a point of comparison, it’s reminiscent of the comfortable material that made up the rear of the LG G3. The 13-megapixel camera on its back is neatly flattened and tucked away in the top left corner, while a pair of logos underneath that similarly avoids ostentatiousness. The slick chrome-like trim wrapped around the phone is really the only thing that screams budget, but even then it looks fine and covers the softly rounded edges. In general, the whole phone is tightly fused together, with no real creakiness or flex to the exterior materials.
Per usual, one benefit of deploying all this plastic is that it keeps the phone light–at 141 grams, the Idol 3 isn’t nearly as hefty as most phablets. It’s also thin (officially measuring 152.7 x 75.1 x 7.4 mm), and for a phone with a 5.5-inch screen, it isn’t particularly unwieldy either. It’s inherently going to be too big for most to use easily with one hand, but with its reasonably sized bezels and small front-facing speakers, it doesn’t waste much of the space it consumes. The fact that its power key and volume rocker (the only physical buttons here) sit in a more natural resting position near the top edges also helps make it a little more inviting to grasp.
It isn’t something with a distinct aesthetic, but the Idol 3 avoids the common budget phone trap of being another bland box. It’s the modest yet pleasant sort of design that we should expect out of most phones in this price range.
The aforementioned 5.5-inch, 1080p IPS LCD display is the Idol 3’s main attraction. In a vacuum, it’s good. In context, it’s phenomenal. Virtually everything required of a good smartphone screen is checked off here: Its colors are lively and accurate; its darker tones are fairly deep; its viewing angles are wide and don’t wash out objects on screen; it’s capable of intense brightness; it stays visible in sunlight; and with a pixel density of 401 ppi, it has no real issues with sharpness.
It can’t match the brilliant contrast of a top-tier OLED panel like the Galaxy S6’s, and it’s somewhat prone to smudges, but very few people would bat an eyelash if this screen was on a phone twice as expensive. It’s more evidence that the rung below the highest-end mobile tech is still beyond serviceable.